January 23, 2020
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The Malgudi Man

Enthralling account of a writer who's made simplicity his strength

The Malgudi Man
By Susan Ram By N. Ram
Viking Rs: 495;Pages: 462
FEW Indian novelists in English, other than R.K. Narayan, have received or deserve a biographical study as comprehensive as this one undoubtedly is. True, with 462 pages, it could do with some pruning, particularly the chapters on the Madras Seances, Brunton the Mystic and Narayan's rather tentative psychic experiences following the death of his wife. Yet overall, this is an enthralling account of a writer in whose life the interaction between experience and observation on the one side and his work on the other are so closely knit.

Two especially interesting things emerge. One is the friendship and encouragement of Graham Greene, to which Narayan responds with gratitude and warmth. As an example of a relationship between tactful guide and sponsor and eager-to-learn apprentice in a country where a writer is usually given over to large and pretentious abstractions, Narayan is unique, indeed almost un-Indian, in his adherence to the detail of reality at ground level. There is no barrier of incomprehension between the text and what the reader grasps. This immediacy is the distinctive kind of simplicity Narayan has patented as his own.

Yet the trouble about simplicity of such incredible purity is that it tempts the biographical critic to read into it a complexity that isn't there. Susan Ram generally avoids this and Narayan himself receives any theorising about his work with astonishment and an if-you-say-so absence of any commitment. Long before Narayan read Chekhov it was being solemnly said that he was influenced by the Russian genius. Only then was the ever-curious Narayan prompted to read Chekhov. His father urged him to read Carlyle and Ruskin. "For his sake," he read "30 pages of The French Revolution" and "25 pages of Marius the Epicurean". Is Narayan here turning his non-intellectualism, true or false, into an asset-making image?

An Indian writer almost by definition has an axe to grind, has overt or covert political leanings, is burdened with a 'message', has an aptitude for moralising and a judge-ment to make. Narayan is unfettered by any of these but is blessed by an ability to mock and to allow his inner laughter to come bubbling to the surface. He looks at a lamplighter, "who, equipped with bamboo ladder, rags, matches and oil, lit up the night in the pre-electrical age; watching his progress from one cast-iron fluted pillar to another, Narayan was filled with questions about the old man." With understated humour and occasionally with mockery, he could transform him into a Malgudi character. In this he is much like his brother Laxman who also transforms the subjects of his caricatures with the laughter-making strokes of his brush.

Little wonder that some of Narayan's critics, while paying conventional homage to his specialised brand of simplicity, insisted on, for example, the socio-political meaning of the novel, The Bachelor of Arts: "The book relates the tragedy of the progressive, modern youth fighting against deep-rooted prejudices, a vicious system of the segregation of sexes and of early marriages and a vicious political system." Nothing could be more distant from the essential Narayan than this. But consider the alternative much sponsored by the English contingent of friendly critics. Willingly adjusting to a Narayan who is unintellectual and unjudgemental, they find him 'charming'. Here is an India without politics, and the boredom of a country burdened with famines, riots, political crises, unsolvable problems, endless squabbles, tedious lecturing and countless disputes. How refreshing to turn to what Narayan has to offer, the exponent of "real India", the purveyor of what is Indianly quaint and conducive to nothing more strenuous or demanding than a responsive chuckle.

Malgudi is a Narayan-created Indian world within a larger India but supposedly a distillation of the latter. This is both true and untrue. True in the sense that Jagan the sweet vendor or Gurumurthy the greedy fellow or Margayya the fortune hunter or Subbiah the rice merchant have their equivalents on the larger Indian canvas outside Malgudi. The Malgudi characters, the charming ones, invite laughter. The non-Malgudi ones, as the contemporary Indian scene illustrates, invite frowns. Untrue in the sense that simplicity and charm are often a recipe for the banal. A rather too conscious fishing for the chuckle can be self-defeating.

Often, but not always, Narayan avoids this trap by a genuine compassion and an ability to see something more than the ordinary in ordinariness, and to accept things as they inherently are. Is the international acclaim for Narayan, as distinct from his reception at home, a vote for the 'simple' India and a rejection of the complicated one? And is the insistence that the former is nearer the Indian essence than the latter acceptable? This is the point at which, with the laughter over, the doubts creep in, and one finds E.M. Forster's opinion of Narayan as 'amusing' more an irritant than a testimonial.

There is, for example, a vast emptiness in a Narayan comment such as: "The curse of town life keeps a man too much between walls, out of touch with nature." Confronted by this sort of thing one yearns for the excitement of advocacy, and if Narayan has no axe to grind one wants to give him one. What redeems him, of course, is that Malgudi is not so much an Indian as a Narayan world and a combination of mockery and a rare sense of the absurd assures him of a status in the world of letters. Labelling him as 'charming' or a vendor of the 'quaint' side of India, as is usually done, is truly to damn the Indian author with faint praise. By implication Susan Ram seems to endorse this, yet is unable to avoid concluding that Na-ayan "shielded complexity behind a deceptively simple appearance". What is more likely is that behind the patented simplicity there is no complexity and to his credit Narayan has never pretended otherwise.

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